One name, two name, real name, true name

Me sitting on the hood of a car.

Grandma took this picture of me when I was three or four.

I’ve written more than once about names: the names I’ve been known by, or the names people I’ve known have used. Each time I’ve at least circled around the question of what, precisely, do we mean when we talk about someone’s real name?

You will find a number of people who insist that only one’s legal name can be considered the real name. But being a person who has legally changed his name (and having known a few other people who have done so), I can assure you that there are also a significant number of people who insist that a legally changed name, while certainly legal, is not real. They insist that only the name given by one’s parents at birth is real, and all the rest are counterfeits… Or nicknames, or something. I confess I have trouble understanding their reasoning, because anytime I tried to discuss it with one of these people, they always reverted to insulting or dismissive language. “You’re just changing it to rebel against your parents,” or “So you didn’t like your name? grow a little backbone and embrace it.”

The closest I ever got any one of them to tell me an actual reason for their insistence was a kind of religious argument that because God “gave” you to your parents, their naming of you is their first step of enacting the divine plan for their parenting. Or something.

Even if you buy the basic premise, standard doctrine in all religions is that humans have free will and can make mistakes, and parents are no exception. Some parents really botch this one. I went to college with a guy who answered to Rob, but his legal name on his birth certificate, chosen by his parents, was Robbie J. Johnson. The J didn’t stand for anything, first of all. But it’s worst, he was the youngest son. His oldest brother they named Robert James Johnson, Jr. His next oldest brother they named Bobby Jim Johnson. His next oldest brother they named Rob James Johnson. When he would tell the story of his naming, Robbie J said his sister was glad she was the fifth child, because when their dad wanted to name her Roberta Jane, their mom put her foot down and said this nonsense has to end. Robbie J and the middle brothers had each had some trouble with federal financial aid applications for college (which are often required just to enroll, even if you don’t need the aid) because of the similar names with identical parents and home addresses.

So I’ve written before about my names. At birth, my parents gave me as my first name the same first name as my father, and his father (and is shared by a great-great-uncle and his grandson, my dad’s second cousin). Part of my childhood being spent in the same small town where my father grew up, and there being a whole bunch of us in that same small town with the same first and last name, people came up with all sorts of ways to try to distinguish us. So Grandpa might be Paul, while Dad was called Paul Jr, and I might be called Paulie. Or, since I had a different middle name than Dad & Grandpa, some people called me by both, Paul-Eugene. Since the aforementioned second-cousin of my dad, Paul Thomas, had been going by just Tom from a very early age, I eventually started asking (then insisting) on being called Gene, derived from my given middle name. And that’s been my legal first name since 1992.

When I’ve written about it before, I had forgotten one important variant. For much of my childhood, my maternal grandmother called me “Paul-Gene.” Grandma’s accent was always a weird mix of Texan and Missourian, and she had a lot of verbal quirks. There were a number of words that she contracted in odd ways. “Substitute,” for instance, she pronounced almost as if it had only two syllables, “subs-stoot.” It wasn’t that she completely dropped the middle syllable, she just squeezed it until is was barely there. The thing is, while I remembered her calling me “Paul-Gene,” I always assumed she was thinking “Paul Eugene” and just squeezing out the middle syllable.

When I got in trouble, she pronounced my first, middle, and last name, putting emphasis on nearly every syllable. But in ordinary conversation, she usually said “Paul-Gene.” When I started asking people to just call me “Gene” she was one of the first family members to start doing so consistently.

After my cousin scanned all of the contents of Grandma’s photo albums and created the discs she shared with the rest of the family, she gave me a big pile of pictures, mostly pictures of myself and dad’s side of the family. It was while looking through those, that I made the discovery. You can tell which pictures Grandma didn’t get around to writing peoples’ names on the back until she was older, because her handwriting is more spidery and irregular. But the old pictures that she wrote on right away, there her handwriting is firm, with bold, artistic flourishes. And on a lot of the old photos from my early childhood, such as the one above, her writing on the back is very clear: “Paul Gene B.”

So, all those years when I thought she was verbally squeezing the “Eu” out of “Paul Eugene” she wasn’t. She was thinking of my name as Paul Gene.

And that’s important to me because, when I legally changed my name, I didn’t simply swap my given first name with my given middle name. I also changed my first name, legally, to “Gene.” Just the one syllable.

As often happened, Grandma was right.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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